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ART REVIEW : 'Sugar 'n' Spice': Sensory Overload in Long Beach : Women artists offer open-ended reflections on power, sex and the relationship between imagination, experience.

April 01, 1993|CATHY CURTIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Floor sweepings, pillows and monkey fur--variously undesirable, humble or sensual materials--are among the ingredients of "Sugar 'n' Spice."

Although all the art in this exhibition--at the Long Beach Museum of Art through May 23--is by women, it isn't specifically feminist, at least, not in the traditional sense. Rather, it's subversive in a sneakily anarchic way, offering open-ended reflections on such topics as power, sex and the relationship between imagination and experience.

Of the 13 Los Angeles-area artists included in this survey--assembled by curators Noriko Gamblin and Carole Ann Klonarides--nine are showing work on the walls, ceilings and floors of the museum, which (fitting to the domestic nature of some of the works' subjects) was formerly a private house.

The other four artists--Hilja Keating, Erika Suderburg, Jean Rasenberger, Rebecca Allen--are represented by a program of videotapes. Overly elliptical, tediously longwinded or embarrassingly banal, they don't share the visceral immediacy that makes the rest of the show so captivating.

If there is a guiding perspective in the show, it may be simply a generously inclusive, hierarchies-be-damned notion of what's worth putting on public view in a gallery. Most of the work succeeds by literally invoking mess, confusion, failure, insignificance, insubstantiality and diminutiveness--as well as a lust for sensory overload. In a general way, most of the works on view also deal with the body as vulnerable, private, malleable, alluring, dangerous and capable of stimulating disorientation.

Anne Walsh's installation, "Mound," consists of a heap of bed rests--those large pillows with "arms" that cradle the bedridden--all covered in motley fabrics. By cutting openings into some of the pillows, turning them this way and that, and inserting the "arms," Walsh suggests that these hunks of fabric and stuffing are engaging in various forms of depersonalized group sexual activities that contrast with the restful, private aspect of bed.

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The rest of Walsh's heavily self-absorbed work conjures up feelings of loss, emptiness and isolation. A series of fragmentary drawings ("I Am Eloise") of the suspendered, perennially flipped-up pleated skirt belonging to the fictional Eloise, a naughty precocious child, suggest a fruitless attempt to disappear into the persona of an eternally beloved, safely pre-pubescent mischief-maker.

In "Everything and Nothing," Walsh inscribes a list of such private and public activities as weeping, talking on phone, making money and worrying on a drawing of a pillow; this work, like her others here, is also about public and private sexuality.

Lauren Lesko's idiosyncratic pieces of furniture--replete with come-hither tactile effects, small, deep cavities and golden dazzle--offer ironic images of female sexuality. Lesko has described her work as a reaction to Freudian views of feminine wiles, and she uses materials such as fur muffs or gold lame to play against those cliches.

The small objects minutely rendered in the middle of Judy Bamber's neutral-toned paintings are normally insignificant things, scrutinized as if through the wrong end of a telescope. In "Because She Is Always Anxiously Expecting the Onset of Pain (Canned Pea and Bruise)," a single pea casting a tiny shadow adjoins a field of peach (invoking the thin-skinned fruit) with a painted bruise.

The reference is to the "The Princess and the Pea," the tale of a lass who won the hand of a king because she was sufficiently delicate to feel a pea beneath layers of mattresses. But the painting, of course, is heavily ironic. The unseen woman alluded to by the title apparently is involved in an abusive relationship.

In Jacci Den Hartog's helplessly mutable universe, a stack of elephants fuse into milky globs ("White Elephant Pour"), a pile-up of white plaster shoe tips and dropped trousers create a monument to exhibitionistic or scatological impulse ("Cascade"), and a tiny fairy-tale castle in the mountains melts into a cheesily atmospheric pool ("Purple Fog").

Den Hartog invites a multiplicity of readings, which range from comments on a culture of wretched excess; loss of control; the impossibility of establishing a normative viewpoint or the reductio ad absurdum of serial formats in contemporary art.

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Far more narrowly dogmatic, Laura Parker offers playful ways of boosting "women's work" into the realm of recognizably important activities. She turns scientific researcher in "Findings: A Cleaning Document," an anonymous-looking collection neatly labeled by origin ("bedroom floor under dresser") and species ("floor varnish, thread, two blueberries"). In her revisionist view of astronomy, delineated with thread on paper, constellations assume such forms as "Washer Woman" and "Mess."

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